Thursday, October 29, 2009

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween! There just aren't enough days in October to read all of the wonderful spooky stories available. Check out a few of them here! By my third year of teaching, I started reading them on October first.
I wanted to tell you about my favorite tradition I started in the school libraries where I worked: the Haunted House Contest! I ask students to make their own haunted houses out of cardboard boxes and bring them to the library during the weeks preceding Halloween. The only rules are: no blood, and no real food attached. The kids can work with friends if they want. Children come up with some pretty creepy creations, definitely "outside the box" over the years; one was a haunted apartment building (complete with working elevator), another was a haunted baseball stadium, and one was a haunted treehouse! Each day leading up to Halloween, the library grows spookier and spookier, looking more like a museum in Transylvania. Finally, all the children who participate are winners and get invited to a spooky storytelling party, where I fill a jack-o-lantern with a bowl of dry ice and water so it smokes like witches' brew and share some stories (here, I am holding up some Pale Green Pants With Nobody Inside "em while reciting Dr. Seuss's What Was I Scared Of?). Most recently I held this before school started so not to disrupt classroom schedules, so we had "Booooooks for Breakfast," with a full brunch, and they could decorate orange-colored cream cheese and bagels with jack-o-lantern faces using fruits and vegetables. Children also received candy-themed bookmarks and treats as they departed. The first year, I had 16 entries, but the most recent year I did it, I had 75 haunted houses in the library! Thanks again to all the parents who supported the program and helped to make it a success! It's late to try it now (you've been rather busy anyway, haven't you?) but something to keep in mind. Please do share your festivities! I think it is such a special day on the children's calendar. I know the media unfortunately plays up the horror aspects of it, but I look at it as a day when we celebrate children's imaginations, and their ability to conquer fears.

Sometimes people say, "Esme, it's a shame you left the classroom and went to the library." Frankly, that always seems to me like a sad and silly thing to say. Librarians can be teachers, too, and I always felt like in the library, I could be more of the teacher I wanted to be. I just used to the position to extend the language arts and fine arts curriculum. I wish someone had told me that this was possible in teacher training. So I'm telling you now.

Curious about the kind of things that school librarians do? Here's an assignment I just finished for library school that gives a hint. (Pardon the roughness; we are learning HTML coding and haven't hit cascading style sheets yet.)

Happy Halloween! Happy fall!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


"Take a photo of your inner self, for you will not always be the teacher you are now."

- from "Hit the Ground Running: Advice for Elementary Teachers," in the new edition of Educating Esmé

People are always coming up or e-mailing after reading Educating Esmé and saying to me, "boy, sister-girl, I could have written that book." Well, there's plenty of room on the shelf, people! The reason I sought to publish the diary was to begin a conversation about what works and doesn't work in education, so we can stop teaching with our doors closed. Keeping a diary opens a door, as does all of your writing, whether for publication, exercise or mental health. My experiences are different than yours, but together, we can share what's true. With that in mind, here are some starters for your own teaching journal:
  • Begin: I was somebody's hero today. Or: I was somebody's villain today. Or: I was somebody's friend today. Or: I was somebody's teacher today.
  • What you learned from your worst teacher.
  • Reflect: What do I have to share in the classroom that is unique? What will they remember about me?
  • Make a timeline of your reading--or math--or science--or teaching life story.
  • Who would you like to thank for where you are on your path?
  • Poem springboards:
- "Daydreams at a Teacher's Meeting"
- "Before the Day Begins"
- "Rules are Meant to be Broken"
  • Fantasize how a student's life could be different. What wish would you grant for that child if you could?
  • Come up with fake awards for the kids (cleanest desk, most nose-picking, most trips to the pencil sharpener?). Don't forget to come up with one for yourself!
  • Jot down lists:
- What you had for lunch;
- What you read aloud;
- Wish lists, shopping lists, sh*t lists
- What makes you laugh, and what makes you cry;
  • Two line observations of students.
  • Write a conversation with a parent or administrator as if it were a page from a play.
  • Write a "Dear Abby" letter of advice to your future self.
  • Reflect: "My runner up career." How can you bring that interest or other aspects of that work into the classroom now?
  • Fantasize: "My day off."
  • What you learned today!
A few words of advice about keeping a diary: keep a notebook in the bathroom. I know that sounds nasty, but appreciate that especially during the first year of teaching, that may be the only time you have to yourself. The other thing is, it's typical to start diaries and not to finish them, and people often feel bad about that. Don't beat yourself up if you don't have an entry every single day; even if you write something once every few months, over time, you'll be surprised by all that you can know about yourself, and how much change you can recognize. Finally, don't think about an audience. In a time of your life when you are doing so much to serve others, journal-keeping is for you, write for you. When I wrote what became Educating Esmé, I was not writing for publication, and I did not compose entries thinking anyone would read them (except for my great-grandchildren). If I had, the writing might have been very different. I would have been more mannered about expressing my exchanges with administration and and self-conscious about sharing my most personal (and sometimes ephemeral) thoughts. I would have written more about the accomplishments of my colleagues (there were many, definitely enough to fill a book) instead of focusing on my own isolation. I certainly would have chosen to make myself look more...uh...demure. Perhaps my profanity would not be written in caps.

From the real diary that became Educating Esmé

Instead, it is what it is. I can look at it and see an honest reflection of a year, with emotions that blow up to the size of weather balloons. I also appreciated that in writing the diary I managed to capture a fleeting picture of some children that I really came to love. Nowadays, everything is about "getting it out there," everything that's said has to be said to the whole world, immediately. But I'm glad and grateful for the little bit of time I spent using my most honest voice just for me. I hope that's something you'll do for yourself, too, wherever it leads, and whatever portions you decide to ultimately share in the interest of the profession.

This post is dedicated to the late and very great Dr. Ron Saiet, a professor I had at Northeastern Illinois University, who encouraged me so fervently to keep journals during my student teaching observations. Please feel free to share a diary entry of your own (anonymous posts welcome) or a link to a favorite teacher blog in the comments section below! Remember, if you need more inspiration you can listen to an abridged version of my diary for free by clicking here. Don't forget that your students can write alongside you, too; check out the great new children's books about reading and writing, including Esther Hershenhorn's S is for Story and John Perry's The Book That Eats People by clicking here, and springboards for childhood memoir writing for young and old based on my book Sing a Song of Tuna Fish by clicking here.

Give it a try! Nobody has to read it if you don't want them to, and it sure beats lesson planning. Happy writing, all!

Thanks to Vermeer, Cassatt, an unnamed Medieval artist, an unnamed photographer, Joseph Wright of Derby and David Teniers the Younger for the artwork.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


A little inspiration for today: footage from 1930.

I know, I know...Annie Sullivan had only one student, and you probably have over twenty, maybe over thirty! Every teacher is called upon to be a special education teacher some of the time, and is afforded the chance of making a radical difference in someone's life. Prepare yourself to meet that challenge by checking out the excellent SERI gateway to on-line special education resources, to help you patiently and effectively individualize instruction to meet the unique needs of your students even in a crowded classroom.